Last week, on Fox News, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was asked about abortion “up until the moment of birth.” Days later, the same topic came up at an event Sen. Cory Booker (New Jersey) held in Iowa.
The alarming 2020 strategy of Donald Trump and the Republicans has become increasingly clear. It is reliant on a toxic mix of disinformation and willingness to openly vilify women. Together, these forces aim to mislead voters, derail Democratic candidates in 2020, and increase the stakes for women in the outcome of this election.
These types of questions about abortion are designed to be traps. No woman sets out to carry a pregnancy only to terminate it moments before birth. The premise of these types of questions is flawed and not based in science, medicine, or reality. Yet there’s an intentional effort to conflate the incredibly difficult and complex reality around abortion later in pregnancy—most often defined as after 20 weeks of pregnancy—with incendiary and fantastical charges of murder of a newborn. There’s no good way to answer this question without affirming the lie at the center of it, which is precisely the point.
But here’s the hard truth we all must face to effectively combat this strategy: The effectiveness of this disinformation depends almost entirely on a belief that women are at best irresponsible and untrustworthy and at worst somehow corrupt or sinful. Without that unfortunately familiar trope, how else could we actually believe that there are hordes of monstrous women out there waiting until the last possible moment to terminate their pregnancy? These charged exchanges and baited questions about abortion aimed at Democrats illustrate a scary reality: that Republicans’ 2020 strategy is reliant on a deeply-rooted belief that women are inferior.
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The “why” is obvious. While they are trying to distract with such fictional charges, they are also working assiduously to criminalize abortion across the country at their own political peril. Polls consistently show that the agenda they pursue is politically unpopular, with 7 in 10 Americans supporting access to safe, legal abortion. Republicans know this, which is exactly why they must resort to misleading and backhanded tactics predicated on lies and hypothetical scenarios in order to try to move the needle and obscure their true aims.
Revealing the underlying suspicion of women serves another, more sinister, purpose. New state abortion restrictions being introduced and passed at breakneck speed have taken a new step toward positioning women as perpetrators. A bill recently passed in Georgia could allow an overzealous prosecutor to target women, and it threatens up to 10 years in prison for doctors who provide abortion procedures after six weeks of pregnancy. An Alabama bill opened the door to authorities investigating and prosecuting women who have miscarriages—forcing women who go through the often-difficult experience of miscarriage to weigh seeking urgent medical care against the risk of being accused of illegally obtaining an abortion. A Texas bill took this a step further, suggesting the death penalty as an appropriate punishment for a woman who seeks an abortion.
The Texas bill died after being given a hearing in the state legislature, but Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) has until May 12 to sign the Georgia one, and other states are following Alabama’s lead. Cumulatively, they all serve the purpose of moving the goalposts in a decades-old fight over abortion care and normalizing a conversation that positions women as deserving of punishment for being in the driver’s seat of our own lives just as Trump promised in his 2016 campaign.
When we take a step back to make the connections, we see the underlying threat is far broader than just attacks on our reproductive freedom—although that would be bad enough.
It is a new breed of misogyny, a disinformation campaign aimed at building and reinforcing the idea that many, if not most, women are villainous monsters, deserving of hatred at worst and needing to be controlled at best.
Women have made major strides to dismantle systems of oppression that have limited our possibilities and constrained our destinies for generations. These are the same systems that blocked women from the ballot box until 100 years ago; the same systems that constructed barriers to women achieving economic prosperity or earning fair wages; and the same systems that curtail our basic freedom to make the best decisions for ourselves, our families, our bodies, and our futures.
And we’re not backing down. We’re demanding more: actual full equality. With the resurgence of energy around the ERA, the fledgling #MeToo movement, renewed efforts around pay equity, delivering a pro-choice majority to the U.S. House of Representatives, and a debate in the presidential primary about issues such as the exorbitant cost of child care that have plagued women forever, women are the driving force behind much of the progress we are seeing right now. All these efforts seek to create further dents in a patriarchal system that has outlived its utility.
Our ability to access abortion will always be the tip of the spear for those who seek to maintain the status quo. The attempt to control women through overseeing our ability to reproduce is a story as old as time. Yet, in order to have an honest conversation, we must acknowledge that this moment is about clashing with a worldview that hinges on systems of power that limit and constrain women and keep powerful men in control.
Now is the time for any person seeking leadership in 2020 to pull back the veil on what’s really happening. And that starts with calling out these bad-faith tactics and refusing to condone conversations that are deeply rooted in perceptions of women that have compromised our dignity, our freedom, and our safety for decades.